Yesterday we held an event at the Scottish Parliament to report back on the result (so far) of our Parliamentary internship pilot programme. Most of the time was given over to the interns themselves, who told some of their stories and expressed some of their feelings about their time with us and with their host MSPs.
Of the seven interns we placed in this pilot, three had already completed, two are finishing this week, and the remaining two will conclude over the next month. In all cases the learning experience has been pretty profound for each them in a variety of different ways, and the evidence of personal development and growth in self awareness and confidence was very much on display at the event. Safe to say it was a remarkable evening with some great moments and great quotes we are going to do our best to capture and share with you in this article.
The event was hosted by James Dornan MSP. James has been the pilot projects “champion” from the start and we owe him a big vote of thanks for his support, without which its unlikely we’d have succeeded in establishing and funding the scheme. James also hosted the first of the interns – Cat Johnson. James spoke about the importance of addressing barriers to politics for disabled people, and later in the event followed this with some very welcome frank and honest insight into his nervousness about dealing with access issues in the early days – and how he realised quickly that there wasn’t much to be nervous about really. Some practical and flexible thinking was all that was needed, and the result was a very valued intern who he had a lot of respect for and would gladly have kept on if funding allowed it.
Our CEO Dr Sally Witcher spoke to briefly outline the project’s objectives and outline:
- Interns increase and disseminate their understanding of parliamentary and political processes, enhancing the scope to redress the under-representation of disabled people working in the political environment.
- Interns develop a range of transferable skills and knowledge that increase their employability more widely
- Politicians increase their understanding of disabled people’s needs and aspirations, the barriers they face and action to remove them, and are better equipped to ensure these are reflected in policy and practice.
- Learning derived through the pilot enables the co-production and promotion of an internship model, demonstrates the value of a longer-term programme of parliamentary internships for disabled graduates and potential for wider rollout of the model
Seven pilot internships, 455 hours at Living Wage delivered flexibly (2 full time, 5 part-time)
Salary and expenses met by project funding
Cross-party involvement in hosting Mainly based in parliament itself – one internship based mainly in constituency
Strong intern involvement in developing and informing support mechanisms and needs
This was followed up by us running a video created by one of the interns as a piece of course work for his part-time university course which went into a little more detail, giving a good all-round account of the project. You can view the video on YouTube.
Intern and staff stories and reflections session
Internship Support and Development Officer Phyl Meyer, the lead staff member delivering the project, then facilitated a session in which many of the interns presented a pre-prepared speech on particular themes within the project, and were then asked some questions to bring out further contributions. Opportunities were also given to MSPs and staff to contribute their own experiences. Towards the end of the session, the format became more open-floor, with questions and comments being sought from the guests at the event.
The themes covered, and the intern who led on each of them, were:
- The beginning of the journey – applying, selection and induction – Julie Watt
- Flexibility and reasonable adjustment in the workplace – overcoming barriers to get involved – Iain Ferguson
- Learning on the political process – becoming engaged and empowered in politics – Dr Gillian Cowell – Read Gillian C’s speech on her blog here
- Attitudes towards disability – promoting awareness and positive thinking – Ryan McMullan
- Looking to the future – Cat Johnson – Read Cat’s speech here
This was of course the centrepiece of the event. Hearing directly from the interns gave guests a real insight into how significant a learning opportunity and an opportunity for personal growth the placements had been for the interns, but also how important a learning and development opportunity it had been for MSPs, their staff and the Parliament this had been. Many of the contributions were emotive and personal, but this was not “inspiration porn” – if anything it was the opposite. Here was a group of qualified, capable and each in their own ways unique and outstanding people who were demonstrating that they could do something which anybody else could do if they were lucky enough to get the opportunity – and all it took were a few reasonable adjustments, some flexibility and some positive attitude to overcome the barriers in the way. The message was that it shouldn’t need to require some heroic effort, genius level mind or Olympic level athleticism – it should just be equally accessible, and if it was then the results spoke for themselves.
A highlight for many was the speech given by Ryan McMullan. To adapt for Ryan’s speech impairment in a practical and accessible way for the event this was delivered via a speech synthesiser program, but this certainly didn’t get in the way of the transmission of Ryan’s passion for the subject. An audio recording of Ryan’s speech can be accessed here via Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/ryan-mcmullan/social-attitudes-speech
There were so many memorable quotes it was impossible to choose only a few, so here is a good selection:
Intern: “The people in my party have been very helpful and friendly”
“I have been to quite a few interviews and this was one of the most difficult but also in some ways one of the most enjoyable ones.”
“It demonstrates how much of a difference it can make to anyone, but particularly disabled people, when you provide a good environment and accessible one for an interview. One comment was that this is the first time the intern had a job interview where they felt like it is a good thing (for applying) to be disabled, whereas normally you keep it hidden and not talk about it and worry it will count against you.”
“If there was a problem we always felt that help and support was there.”
“It is interesting how reflective most of <the interns> have been about the experience. You may not have known yourself what was needed in terms of access and support and adjustments, and that has been a learning curve. If it difficult for the person themselves to know – imagine how hard is it for everyone else?”
“I went in thinking I didn’t need anything and didn’t deliberately mislead anyone. I did learn my <impairment related> limitations on the job and had to own up to those. That was positive in moving forward and gaining experience. The project really benefited me.”
MSP host: “Very grateful for the opportunity. My experience and that of my office was a pleasure and a delight to have Gillian <Mackay> with us. We are dealing with talented people here with so much to offer. The fact this happened here in the Parliament, I think this pilot but should continue, it should not stop, and it should spread and become the norm throughout the government, not just the parliament. We have a lot of work to do, its too difficult for people with disability to find employment and I have experience of that within my family.”
“I am love, love, LOVING my internship, and having too much fun!”
Scottish Parliament Officer: “We had to learn on the go and every experience is different, that is good for us and all the interns were involved in the parliamentary business side and meeting the heads of group and committee office, that was a real experience for them, to job shadow. Adjustments were sometimes challenging but the key issue was that it’s important for an employer to show they are supportive so that individuals can be confident to talk about their disability. Sometimes people don’t want to express that and find out later. It’s employers responsibility to do that, not the individuals, to make people feel confident to talk about <discussing their impairment> and what adjustments need to be made.”
Another MSP host: “I really enjoyed it, I thought it was great and good to be involved and to sit and speak about the challenges and see how we could address them. One please I’d have is maybe about it the length? I think people are just now really finding their feet and deciding what to do and now it is coming to an end! The other plea, what we were talking about creating a generation of politicians and its really important that some of the work to make that happen is possibly not on the job but maybe would involve other opportunities to develop skills….. ….. You talk about interns learning but WE have learned so much! I thought I understood the issues and barriers. I have taken as much if not more from it. He brought skills we didn’t have, a different perspective. We benefited a lot through the whole process and from the knowledge of what we need to do to change and address the barriers out there. Ryan showed there was no barrier that should stop him, and that is an inspiration for others coming forward.”
“I did case work mostly in parliament, a huge part of the MSPs work and the work of their staff. I was privileged to be engaged in that and its a major responsibility to work on behalf of constituents. I had to learn about the systems and procedures of parliament, which was difficult and challenging. You only get that knowledge by being in parliament and experiencing that environment. You are reading briefings and rebuttals for chamber debates and a wide variety of briefings and facts and figures, future plans and issues. I did a lot of reading as much as I could. You develop an understanding of how committees and bills and acts are put together, you see how the Q and A system works and how information flows. I got to see both sides of the M.S.P questioning system and the minister answering system. Quite an experience.”
“The issue is that we face many barriers to participating in community life and in politics due to the types of impairments and disabilities we have, with accessibility, with the required adjustments. We are also likely to be high users of public services, including the NHS (in my case). Crucial for us is to take the opportunities forward to get involved in politics and be helpful to others who maybe don’t imagine having these experiences in the future.
“If I had asked interns at the start if they could imagine being an MSP, or someone with their impairment being one, they would have mostly said no, but now it would be ‘Yes – but…’, it CAN be done.”
“It’s been a recurring theme that potential interns have said they feel when they go for a job the potential employer is looking at them thinking ‘you can’t do this’. Its refreshing to attend an interview where we are saying ‘yes you CAN do this’! Iain said straight off at his interview that he could not work more than 3 days a week due to fatigue issues, and we had built in the flexibility for that rather than insisting on full-time so it was no problem. But I wonder how many employers would do the same? Not many unfortunately.”
External guest: “From the perspective of someone who has worked in employability support you can’t overstate the important of positive role models. We encounter people reluctant to disclose disability due to employer prejudice. But having examples of people pursuing a successful career does give you the confidence to disclose and get the support in work they are entitled to get”
Joy Lewis, CEO of Adopt and Intern: “We have prided ourselves on our open and transparent application process, ensuring all graduates can benefit, including disabled graduates. That said, listening to the past experiences of the disabled graduates here today, makes me realise that we’ve hardly touched the surface. They are asking those of us in the room to say what we can do for the future to address some of the issues they face looking for work – well I will try and do something. We have given this lip service, and although we can show we have placed disabled graduates, we are not doing enough to engage with the hundreds of employers at our fingertips. I would like to speak to you, the graduates, more so I can tell employers how they can benefit.””
“After hearing from other interns we can be in no doubt as to the value of the programme.. ..I had an incredible time in parliament working with James Dornan and shadowing the different departments. When I told friends and family it sounds as if I am making it up. I know there are other interns with similar experiences. We have learned a huge amount and we gained many valuable skills that added tangible experience and an ‘X-factor’ to our CVs. For me prior to starting the internship, I had very little success in getting a job. I have now recently been appointed as case worker at SAAS which is part of the Scottish Government, and I credit this project for that. I hope now to find myself on an equal footing with my peers in terms of building a career. I hope to inspire other disabled people to seek other opportunities. I am delighted with my new job but I feel society has a long way to go to reach the equality we desire. Legislation is there but we must do more to ensure this is put into practice.”
MSP host: “I was nervous about taking on someone with disabilities not having worked in that scenario before. Very quickly I saw I had a capable person working for me and I had to stop looking at that person as someone with a disability but as someone who was working for me. Every member of staff here gets treated differently by the employer. Everyone has different needs, you have to talk to each person differently. Its the same with this intern project. It took me a while to realise this.”
“If my budget had allowed I would have kept her on as a member of staff.”
In response to being asked how important being paid was to the internship: “Its more about self esteem for me, to know my work was valued and I was paid a wage for it. I strongly encourage you to do that. At the time when I was looking for it if it wasn’t paid I would not have applied. I was so focused on getting paid. The impact on my self esteem, being able to pay my bills and for my flat. There was a short period of unemployment after I finished and going back on benefit was a huge blow.”
On being self-aware and honest about impairment and adjustment needs: “When I did apply for <my new job> it was all laid on the table, to be honest I probably erred on the side of caution and explained how bad it is on the worst day. That is not something I would have done prior to my experience here. It showed me it was okay to be honest about it.”
“I don’t think you realise exactly how big an opportunity this was. There are lots of people working in policy outside of parliament who would give their eye teeth to get the insights you have had, that you can’t get other than working here. I am so happy you seized that opportunity! You have heard today, you will probably change how a major intern organisation works with employers. You haven’t just changed your own lives but began to change the world and that is what working in policy is about. I want to congratulate you all. You are real role models. Let people see and hear from you what we can do. You have shown its entirely possible if disabled people are given the opportunity they can do the job as well as everyone else.”